Sunday, November 28, 2004

Giving Thanks For My Own Personal Ralph Nader. 

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, mostly because there is so little to say about it. If you cook Thanksgiving dinner, you spend all morning and most of the afternoon in the kitchen, if you don't, you spend it in front of the tv, if you're somebody's 65-year-old dad, you helpfully stick your nose into the kitchen every 20 minutes to ask if the turkey is done yet, thinking, perhaps, that women have some magical flesh-burning power that enables us to instantly elevate organic tissue to 180°F whenever we want, but choose not to because WE WANT MEN TO GO HUNGRY.

Several years ago my friend Toby and I were making Thanksgiving dinner for Toby, her parents, her brothers, Toby's partner Mary, Mary's mother and aunts, and Steve. Everyone was content to sit in the living room with the game on, eating hors d'oeuvres and talking, except for Toby's father who began to nag us like clockwork, three times an hour.

"Is the turkey ready yet?" "Well, when do you think it will be done?" "Is it ready yet?" "I'm really hungry." "I really need to eat." Hey! Old man! Hors d'oeuvres! Canapes! Petit-fours! Whatever French word for "put this in your mouth and shut up" works for you!

Toby was unable to yell at her father, and kept reassuring him that the turkey would be served as soon as it was fully cooked. Small lines formed around the sides of her mouth after about the fifth query, pulling them down into a tight-lipped frown. Sweat began to bead at her temples. She ceased speaking, and ceased making eye contact. We began to speak to each other only about the food, and then only out of necessity.

And the turkey would not cook. And would not cook. And would not cook. The juices were running blood red after 6 hours in the oven. Relations between the cooks and the rest of the party were getting strained. Mary had run out of party tricks and could no longer restrain the natives. Toby was hunched over the stove, doing what can only be described as angry stirring. Finally, Mary poked her head in the kitchen.

"Um, hon? Is there anything I can do to help?"

Toby could not yell at her father. She would not yell at me, her only help for the past two days. But she could kill the shit out of this messenger, no matter how gently and politely the message was delivered.

"Is there anything you can do to help? Hmmm....Yes. Yes there is. You can GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY KITCHEN BEFORE I KILL YOU!!!"

Mary blinked. "Okay...." she murmured, then backed slowly away. The door swung shut. The kitchen was silent except for the whisk whisk whisk of the wooden spoon swirling the green beans.

Ooooh, I thought, somebody's going to need an apology later on.

And Mary did get one for bearing the brunt of Toby's misplaced anger, but only after the turkey finally cooked, Toby's father was pacified by forkfuls of turkey with mushroom gravy, and Toby was sitting down with a beer.

For the past few years, I've only had to cook for my own immediate family, which in the past has not been bad, but is getting worse as the boys have decided that if it ain't peanut butter and jelly, it ain't shit. This year I swore I wasn't going to have Thanksgiving dictated to me by people with such ridiculously limited palates, but after cooking for two days only to be told the food tasted like ass, I'm seriously thinking about ordering Chinese food next year.

But damn it, I thought it was good, at least, and even with two kids and a full time job I managed to cook the entire meal from scratch and got it all on the table by three.

I bought the turkey at Whole Foods, mostly because Eric Schlosser scared the shit out of us. I went shopping Sunday after work and picked up the turkey, along with some other stuff I didn't think I could get at Jewel.

I needed maple extract for the cranberry sauce. I had never heard of maple extract before, but assumed it was similar to vanilla extract. I found "maple flavor", which was probably a good enough substitute, but I asked an employee just to make sure. He was about 20 years old, and was kneeling in front of the spices.

He paused and looked at the bottle of maple flavoring for a moment. Then he stood up and morphed into, I swear, Al Pacino at the end of the Godfather when he tells Diane Keaton that he didn't kill Connie's husband Carlo.

"Excuse me, is maple flavor a substitute for maple extract?"

"Ma'am, it is the exact same thing."

"Just this once, Kay, I'll let you ask me about my business."

"Is it true, Michael? Is it true?"


I know this is supposed to be the greatest guy film ever, but I promise you, women have seen it, too! And we know Michael was lying! We know it!

But there was something about that "I will not be argued with" tone the little punk took with me that did, briefly, make me want to shut up and agree. (Oh, Michael! Big hug!) Until it pissed me off, anyway, but being the nonconfrontational wuss that I am, I was about to let it go when an older woman, a grandmotherly type of about 60, appeared at my elbow.

"You're not telling the truth!" she declared. (She must have seen the movie, too.)

"You know, young man, if you don't know the answer to something, it's all right to say you don't know. There's no need to lie to people just to make yourself look better. Maple "flavor" implies artifical additives, while maple "extract" implies a more natural substance extracted from the syrup. And she didn't ask if it was the same thing, she asked if she could substitute it. There's no need to be snotty just because she asked you something you can't answer."

Then she turned to me.

"Dear, it's only an adequate substitute if you're not trying to make an all-natural dish. If you're just going for flavor, it should be fine. Now, you can tell me if I can substitue maple syrup for white sugar."

This woman would have made a lousy mafia wife, but a pretty kick-ass consumer advocate, if you ask me.

The maple flavoring turned out to be just fine.

Cranberry Sauce with Maple Flavoring

2 12-oz bags of fresh cranberries
1 1/2 cups maple syrup
1/2 C water
1/2 t cinammon
1 C brown sugar
3/4 t maple flavoring or maple extract. Or just leave it out. I don't think it matters.

Put it all in a medium non-stick saucepan and cook it over medium heat until the berries pop, about 12 minutes. Stir frequently. Transfer to bowl. Cool completely. (Can be made 5 days in advance. Cover, chill.)

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